The Stake, chapters 1 - 7

by Riley Cannon

DISCLAIMERS, WARNINGS, ETC.: Oz the series and its characters/concepts are the property of Levinson-Fontana Productions, HBO, et al; I am making no money from this.
Subject: B/K; rated R to NC-17.

Summary: Toby wants Chris to have a really nice Valentine's Day.

This is a sequel to "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," so this is set in Alternate Universe Land where most of the current season of OZ, post- "You Bet Your Life," doesn't happen. About the only thing I'm keeping is the timeline, so this would be about seven months since the boys reconciled; there is also a mention of the game show, "Up Your Ante.". This is only meant to be a Valentine's Day Plot?WhatPlot? but then again, the original wasn't meant to be a whole lot more than that, and look how it turned out. <sigh> Oh I'm borrowing Katherine McClaine, too, but don't anybody worry; nobody's coming between Chris and his Sweet Baboo here.

This isn't a song fic, per se, at least the lyrics don't have a whole lot of bearing on what happens. The music, on the other hand... Don't know how familiar anyone will be with this song, "The Stake," but you can find it on The Steve Miller Band's Greatest Hits CD. It's got this really sexy R&B bump and grind beat that defies you to keep your hips still, and makes for good background make out music (not that I would know anything about that sort of thing, of course). The lyrics are quoted without permission, no copyright infringement is intended.

By now it ought to go without saying that this contains: sap, angst, sex, more sap...


Burnin' burnin all you can take
Wheels are turning in the bed you make
I'll take you over
You're tied to the stake
Nobody loves you like the way I do

Light rain's over
The sun's all around
Four leaf clover
As I pull you down
I'll take you over
You're tied to the stake
Nobody loves you like the way I do.

February 14, 2001

Toby knew he should be getting back up to his own bunk before the lights came on, but he loved to linger over these moments when Chris was so snug and warm against him. He smiled, thinking they could probably have a king-sized bed all to themselves and still end up like this every night. Not that he was complaining. One of the few things Toby could say in favor of their sleeping arrangements here in Oz was that he'd discovered how much he liked to cuddle.

He held very still as Chris shifted, not really wanting him to wake up yet. Chris was just getting comfier, though. Toby felt pretty good, too, really not wanting to move with their legs tangled together and Chris' head pillowed on his chest, one hand resting on his stomach. One of the sweetest feelings, Toby had decided, was just the soft warmth of Chris' breath against his skin. He got an arm around Chris' shoulders, just holding him lightly, wanting to stay like this for a long time like, forever.

Of course even in a more ideal setting moments like this would be a little rare. The kids would be getting up at the crack of dawn and wanting them up as well, and then there would be a million things to do all day long; they might not have another moment all to themselves until they had put the kids to bed in the evening. That was a way of life Toby knew very well, although he did have a feeling there would be a few significant differences this time around. For one thing, even if he had a whole slate of cases to work on Toby couldn't imagine that he would be immersing himself in any work he'd brought home from the office, not with Chris sitting there, waiting to pounce.

All of which was, maybe, a whole lot of wishful thinking on his part Chris, the eternal pessimist, certainly thought so. With Chris, the glass wasn't just half-empty, the contents were probably poisoned to boot. Toby thought he was getting a little better about that, but as with everything, it was taking some time, just like getting him to believe there was a really good chance of him walking out of Oz. Toby and his father had very carefully explained everything that was being done to see about getting Chris' verdict appealed, and Harrison had said things were looking very good that way. Chris just nodded politely, said he was really grateful for Mr. Beecher's help, and went on taking a pretty dubious view of his future.

Given all the times he'd been disappointed by how something turned out, Toby guessed he could hardly blame Chris for not getting too excited. At least he'd stopped telling Toby to put Oz and everything related to it behind him just as soon as his parole came through. Toby hoped that was because Chris really believed him when he said there was no way in hell he was going to go off and forget Chris, and not just because he thought it would make Toby happy to play 'Let's Pretend.'

He smiled to himself, remembering Chris' reaction to finding out Toby's parole was being handled by a woman. Chris had wanted to know what she looked like, how old was she, did Toby think she was pretty, was she married or single or what? Knowing Chris had nothing to be jealous about, Toby hadn't been able to resist teasing him, telling him Katherine was young and very pretty, that she was divorced, and yes, she was sort of sexy now he thought about it. 'Well I guess you'll be real happy together,' Chris had said, with a pout worthy of any fiveyear -old. Toby had instantly relented, hooking his arms around Chris' neck and telling him, 'Oh, for fuck's sake, Chris I don't even know what color her eyes are. She's probably really nice, but I am not interested in her as anything but my lawyer. And even if she was interested in me, well, I'm spoken for, right?" he had finished, snatching a quick kiss. Chris had looked happier at that, and once the lights were out Toby had made sure he was in no doubts of how things stood.

Actually Toby was pretty proud of them both. It wasn't so long ago that something stupid like that would have escalated out of all proportion, maybe even ending with fists flying. There was still the occasional shouting and shoving match but they had learned to tone it down pretty quickly. Mostly they just had sulking bouts that could last for most of a week until one of them decided to get down off his high-horse about whatever they had been quarreling about which, nine times in ten, was something really dumb. The making up part was always nice, though. Toby suspected it was probably always going to be like to some extent; the volatility between them was a whole lot of the attraction, after all. He felt pretty certain it would be easier to channel all that more constructively in a different kind of environment, though; that life in Oz was at the heart of a lot of the conflict.

Or was he just wishing upon a star? Toby wondered, running a gentle hand over Chris' head. Sometimes he did worry that what they had found together was unique to Oz, that they wouldn't be able to make it work on the outside. And sure, maybe that meant his own glass was kind of on the half-empty side, too.

He didn't think about that too often, though. He sure didn't want to spend today of all days dwelling on all the ways everything might go wrong. No, on this day for lovers Toby wanted to wallow in sappy sentimentality and see to it that Chris did, too. There was cause to believe this was an achievable goal. Although, as with everything else, it had taken a whole lot of patience to get to this point, Toby mused, recalling Chris' birthday three months before...

"What's this?"

Toby looked over his book at Chris standing over by his bunk, suspiciously eying the brown paper-wrapped package sitting there. He would have liked it to be wrapped more nicely, but had accepted that would be pushing his luck too far. Everything had already come together better than Toby had dared hope for, with Bob Rebadow easily agreeing to be a go-between in getting around the Nazi-run mailroom. Vern had been leaving them alone for the most part, but Toby couldn't trust that this respite would go on indefinitely. He was positive that if Vern somehow figured out that such and such a package for Tobias Beecher contained a special item intended for Chris Keller, that Vern would use it to fuck with them both. There was no reason for Vern to give a damn what Rebadow was getting in the mail, however, and it had taken surprisingly little finagling to get it all accomplished in time.

This, however, might be the biggest hurdle.

"It's a package," he patiently told Chris. "For you."

Chris' skeptical looked shifted over to Toby. "From you?"

"No from the Tooth Fairy," Toby returned, voice keeping its mild tone. "Yes, it's from me," he added, smiling.

Chris didn't return the smile. He didn't touch the package, either. "What's it for?"

Toby fought the urge to roll his eyes in exasperation. "Your birthday."

Chris turned that idea over, then, "How come?"

"Because I wanted to get you something. That's the sort of thing that happens when you love someone."

With a shrug that didn't quite tell Toby how he felt about that, Chris nudged the package with a certain wariness, as if expecting it to bite him. "What is it?"

"Why don't you open and see? And if you start another round of 'why' and 'how come' I'll come over there and thump you."

Chris shot him a resentful look, but sat down on his bunk and picked up the package, turning it over in his hands. "I don't need anything."

Toby could dispute that, but unfortunately most of the things Chris needed couldn't be wrapped up with bows and ribbons. "Will you just open it?"

"You gotta watch me do it?"

Toby smiled, shaking his head and obligingly turned his attention back to his book. He kept a surreptitious eye on his lover, though, as Chris carefully unwrapped the package. He'd had a feeling Chris probably hadn't gotten a lot of presents but it hurt to see that confirmed in the awkward way the other man approached such a simple task. The last thing he wanted to do was make Chris feel uncomfortable, and Toby was suddenly afraid this may have been a really bad idea. He worried his lip, watching as Chris took out four CDs, still wrapped in cellophane and spared a moment to hope his father had found the right ones and hadn't gotten something by The Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears.

Finding out Chris' favorite music hadn't even required any special effort, thanks to Busmalis and Up Your Ante. They had all been watching the game show one day and one of the questions was about the 1960s music festival, Woodstock; Busmalis was the only one who'd gotten it right. Rebadow had asked how he'd known that and Busmalis had told them he'd been there. While Rebadow was saying, "No, you weren't," and Busmalis was replying, "Why would I lie about that?" Ryan chimed in to say, "I never saw what the big deal was about Woodstock," and Chris had nodded in agreement, adding, "The only one of those old guys that didn't suck was Jimi Hendrix." While the debate raged on over the merits of golden oldies vs. contemporary artists with Chris and Ryan conceding that The Beatles, Stones, and Motown weren't bad; and Rebadow saying no one was ever going to do it better than Sinatra and Toby Bennett; and all generations agreeing that they wouldn't say 'No' to Jennifer Lopez Toby had experienced one of those transcendent moments of connection with Chris. Well, and Ryan, too, he supposed.

All his life Toby had been vaguely annoyed when someone, like his Uncle Wally, would drone on about how great the Sixties had been, and how Woodstock which Uncle Wally hadn't even gone to had been the greatest pop culture experience of the 20th century. And how anyone like Toby who only had the Seventies and Eighties as their cultural touchstones was just too pitiful for words. So discovering that he was not alone in his indifference to the significance of Woodstock and all the rest of it bordered on a revelatory moment. That he further shared this with the man he loved was the cherry on top.

On the other hand, Toby thought he might keep his fondness for the BeeGees and Abba to himself for the time being. Maybe he'd spring that as a surprise on, say, their twenty-fifth anniversary. By then maybe he would have discovered Chris nursed a secret passion for something incredibly uncool, too like his favorite TV show was The Brady Bunch, or something.

And at least he'd discovered that Chris' tastes in music ran mostly to hard rock and Rhythm & Blues "What?" he'd teased him. "No secret passion for show tunes?" Chris had replied with a friendly, "Fuck you. That sounds like more your style." Toby had said he didn't see what was wrong with the occasional sappy love song, admitting he liked Elton John a lot. Chris had looked a little askance at that, but then conceded that once in a blue moon maybe a love song was okay, and that he used to think Linda Ronstadt sang kind of pretty.

As Toby had been trying to think of something to get Chris for his birthday, the timing had been perfect. Now he just hoped his good intentions weren't about to go badly awry.

"There's a note for you," Chris said, holding up a slip of paper.

"Me?" Toby came over to take it from him, recognizing his father's handwriting. He canted a look at the CDs to see what Harrison had picked out, relieved to see his father had come through as he spotted the names George Thorogood, Steve Miller Band, Bruce Springsteen and Linda Ronstadt; looked like they were all greatest hits collections, too. The note was short, just his father saying he hoped he had found the right CDs, and he was sorry, but the store had been all out of anything by Jimi Hendrix, and that he hoped Chris enjoyed them.

"So," he said, sitting down beside Chris, "you like them?"

Chris shrugged. "Yeah, I guess," he said, enthusiasm noticeable by its total absence. "You shouldn't be spending your money on me."

Toby let a sigh escape at last. "Chris, money is not an object. Not to mention those probably cost less than what I used to drink in a day. I just wanted to do something nice for you. I'm sorry if it upsets you." He slumped back on the mattress. "That's the last thing I want to do."

Chris looked at him, frowning, then saying, "I'm not upset, Toby. It's just...I don't expect stuff like this."

"Well, start expecting stuff like this," Toby said, reaching to run a hand down his arm, "because it's not going to be a one-time deal."

"Toby, you don't gotta-"

"Chris," Toby sat up, glancing around to see if anyone was watching, and swooping in to steal quick kiss, "I know I don't gotta," he smiled. "I want to." Brushing his fingers along the side of Chris' face, he added, "I know it sounds nuts, but the fact you don't want things from me only makes me want to give you everything."

Looking back at him, very solemn for a moment, Chris nodded and said, "Yeah, that sounds nuts, all right."

"Well, consider the source," Toby returned, bringing Chris' head closer, lingering a lot longer over the kiss this time, whispering, "Happy birthday," against his lips.

...At least Toby knew Chris had finally had a really good birthday, and even though Chris had made out it was no big deal and they were both a little old to worry about things like birthdays anyway, he had cause to think Chris had enjoyed it. His lover had yet to reciprocate, but the only reason that concerned Toby was suspecting Chris doubted he could give him anything good enough. It ought to be obvious that all the gift Toby ever wanted was the six-foot tall, blue-eyed package of Christopher Keller and he couldn't help smiling at the image that sprang to his mind, of said Christopher Keller wrapped up in a bow, waiting for him but that might be another concept Chris was going to take his time getting used to.

Catching a glimpse of Murphy coming in to start the dayshift, Toby decided he'd better move, and carefully slipped out of Chris' bunk, pausing to press a quick kiss to his cheek before climbing up to his own bunk pulling the blanket up just seconds before the lights came on.


Chris instinctively reached for Toby as he woke up. "Toby?" he called softly, running his hand over the still-warm sheet.

"Yeah?" Toby dangled his arm over the side and Chris reached up to grasp his hand for a moment.

It sure would be nice to wake up next to Toby every morning, Chris thought as he let Toby go and sat up, rubbing his face. It would be nice to do a whole lot of things with Toby that didn't always require secrecy and the cover of darkness. Somehow he didn't think he ought to be getting his hopes up about that ever changing, though. Toby liked to pretend they were both going to get out of Oz and go live happily ever after, and that was real sweet of him, but Chris knew better. Deep down Toby did, too, he had to. If it kept Toby happy to play along, well, Chris figured that was the least he could do for him in whatever time they had left. He had a feeling that might be dwindling down pretty quickly.

Toby dropped down from his bunk. "Sleep well?" he said, smiling at him.

Chris squinted suspiciously back at him. "Fine. What're you so happy about?"

"What've I got to be unhappy about?"

"You mean besides the whole being in prison bit?" Chris said as he got up, stretching and wincing at the pops and cracks.

"Yeah, besides that," Toby returned, casting him an amused look. "You need your joints oiled, or something?"

Chris gave him a sour look. "I need to roll the calendar back about ten years." Damn, getting old was really gonna suck, wasn't it?

"Umm hmm, you're so ancient and decrepit now," Toby said, still smiling. He pressed a kiss to Chris' shoulder. "There's nothing wrong with you that sleeping on a good mattress wouldn't fix."

Which wasn't a remotely realistic prospect, of course. That was just more of Toby's 'Wait Until We're Out Of Oz' daydream. His pretty balloon was going to get popped soon enough, but Chris didn't have the heart to be the one who did it, not when Toby was looking so bright and shiny today. Chris wished he could have a picture of him like this, something to tuck away so he'd never forget what Toby looked like. Not that he ever could; he was pretty sure everything about Toby was permanently stamped on his heart, indelible as any tat. But, still, it would be nice to have a little something of him to hold onto when he was gone.

Toby was looking at him funny now, like he was seeing too much, and Chris flashed him a quick smile, turning away and pulling on a pair of jeans before going out to fall in line beside Rebadow as Mineo started calling Count.

Joining him, Toby leaned close to whisper, "So what are your plans for today?"

Huh? Chris looked at him, wondering what the fuck was spinning in his head now. "My plans?"


"Gee, I don't know, I'll have to check my schedule." Chris shook his head. "What the fuck's with you?"

Toby just grinned. "Just make sure you've got the evening cleared."

"Oh, yeah, I'll make a point of that." Chris gave him another suspicious look. "You know, sometimes you still act nuttier than a Mars Bar."

Toby's grin just got a little brighter; even Mineo's glower couldn't dim it as the hack called their numbers and fixed them with a dirty look.

Sister Pete watched Chris fiddle with a pen as he gazed off into space again no, not space, she realized, turning and following his gaze to the crucified Christ on the wall of her office. "These sessions work better if someone actually says something," she prompted after another long moment.

He shrugged, sitting back in the chair. "Like what?"

"Like what has you so preoccupied?" He seemed more pensive than usual, guarded, but she kept getting the impression he had something he wanted to talk about; it was just taking him awhile to get there. "Is it something to do with Tobias?"

He gave her a little lopsided smile. "Kind of."

"Are you having problems?" So far as she knew they had been getting along very well; Tobias had been almost annoyingly cheerful lately, in fact.

Chris shook his head. "No, we're fine."

Sister Pete looked over the rims of her glasses at him. "Chris, I'm not a psychic nun-"

He smiled at that.

"-if you have something to say, say it."

"Do you believe in hell, Sister?" he asked, looking very serious now, and taking her by surprise.

"I don't know," she told him.

"But you believe in heaven."


Chris leaned forward, elbows propped on the desk. "How come?"

Even though he had been on his best behavior these past months, with no hint of repeating his previous behavior, Sister Pete couldn't help the flare of suspicion that hit her whenever he seemed to be getting too personal. "How come what?"

"Why do you believe there's anything more to life than this? We live and die and what's the point of any of it?"

"Because that's all that makes the tragedy and misery bearable," she told him. And sometimes it was just barely enough. "Is this about your near death experience?" One of the many things she knew she had to atone for was turning him away back then, being so eaten up with spite and fear that she had ignored his pleas for help.

"Yeah, kinda, I guess."

"You know, Chris, a lot of doctors think those are just some chemical reaction that occurs in the brain."

His mouth quirked with a wry smile. "Sister, I've had chemical reactions in my brain this wasn't like that."

She couldn't help smiling back. With a rueful shake of her head she asked, "You really think you went to hell?

He nodded.

"And that you're going back?"

"Maybe. I'm thinking maybe this is it, though, being stuck in Oz for the rest of my life."

Ah, Sister Pete thought she was getting a glimmer of insight now. "Especially when Tobias isn't here anymore?"

He looked across at her, the sadness in his eyes almost too much to take for a moment before he quickly looked away. "Yeah," he said, very quietly.

And what could she tell him? She knew Tobias and his father were working to get Chris' conviction appealed; she felt pretty sure Tobias had promised Chris that he would stay in touch if he got paroled, that Chris would not be forgotten and she could see that Chris didn't believe a word of it. Maybe he couldn't. Maybe that was just too much of a leap of faith for him to take.

"Would you want Tobias to stay here with you, Chris?" she asked, watching him think that over. It would have been gratifying if he immediately answered 'No' to that, but there was probably more honesty in his taking some time about it.

"No," he finally said, reluctance coloring his voice. "He never should've been here in the first place. But..." He bit his lip, arms folded over his chest, eyeing her warily. "But I think about him being gone sometimes, and..." He looked away again, unable to go on.

Sister Pete sighed, regretting that because of the way things had played out before, because of the way that had tainted everything, the only comfort she could offer him was words and she couldn't even be sure which ones he most needed to hear. "And it hurts," she finished for him.

He glanced at her quickly, then away again, nodding.

"Can you talk to Tobias about this?"


Sister Pete leaned forward, curious. "Why not?"

"Because... He doesn't want to hear it. He keeps pretending everything's going to have a happy ending."

"I see. And you're absolutely positive there can't be one?"

Chris looked at her then, his expression guarded once more. "Sister, I'm where I belong, where I've always belonged. The things I've done..." He faltered for a moment. "See, that's what I mean," he went on, gaze going to the Christ on her wall again. "Maybe this is my penance: to have to give up Toby. That that's why I found him in the first place, here to know what it's like to love someone, but have to lose it."

"Chris..." Sister Pete hesitated a moment, then got up and came around to him. "Chris," she touched his hand, "if God sent you here to find Tobias, to find love, it wasn't meant to punish you."

"Then why does it hurt?" he demanded, something almost childlike in his manner.

"Oh, Chris..." What could she say to him? "That's how we know the value of our love, by the proportions of joy and pain it brings us. The only way to not be hurt is not to love at all." And did that help at all, Sister Pete wondered, or only sound like some clich platitude to him? "You have to talk to Tobias about this, make him listen and understand. Have faith that he will."

And maybe she would have a word with him, too.

Uh oh. Toby couldn't miss the rather severe look Sister Pete aimed at him as he walked in; he could feel her looking at him as he sat down at the computer and turned it on. After another moment he turned in his chair and looked over at her. "Is something wrong?"

"When was the last time you spoke to Chris?" she asked him, seemingly out of the blue.


"No, let me rephrase that: When was the last time you listened to him?"

What the fuck? "We talk all the time, Sister Pete."

"And when you talk all the time, Tobias, what does Chris say?"

He frowned, beginning to not like the direction of this. "Is that really any of your business?"

"I'd like to think it isn't, that it won't be."

"What exactly are we talking about?" Toby asked.

"We're talking about you being self-absorbed again, and not paying attention to anything but what you think is important."

He sat back, totally broadsided by that. "Excuse me? And what is it you think I'm not paying attention to because I'm all wrapped up in myself?" Where the fuck did she get off with that?


Well now he really didn't know what was going on. "Sister Pete, if I paid anymore attention to Chris-"

"I'm not talking about that, Tobias. I'm talking about you being quiet for once and letting someone else talk"

"Is that what he was in here saying that I'm not letting him talk?" Toby didn't know what to make of that, either. Chris had been a little moody lately, but that wasn't anything unusual. Quickly reviewing everything in his head, he couldn't pick out any particular incident that could have Chris' nose that much out of joint.

"He was in here saying a lot of things, things he doesn't think you want to hear. I told him he was wrong about that, that he could trust you listen and understand." She put her glasses on, giving him another stern look. "I hope I wasn't wrong about that."

Well...fuck. Toby turned back to the computer, glaring at the monitor. Getting scolded by a nun because Chris was sulking over something was not what he had in mind for today at all.


Well, it was about time, Toby thought as he finally ran Chris to ground in the library. He hovered just inside the door, not sure what he was going to say, especially when he had no idea what was even wrong. For the life of him Toby could not think what could be troubling Chris, as far as knew things had never been better between them, and he didn't know what upset him more: that Chris was keeping something from him, or that he had confided it to Sister Pete. Weren't they supposed to be past all that?

"Chris," he said, pulling out a chair and sitting opposite him, "is there something you want to tell me?"

Chris looked up from his book, apparently baffled by Toby's question. "Like what?"

"You tell me. Sister Pete seems to think you've got something on your mind."

Chris frowned, shifted in his chair. "She shouldn't have said anything to you," he replied, looking back at his book.

Toby reached over, laying his hand on Chris' wrist. "If something's bothering you, Chris, you can tell me. Whatever it is, we'll deal with it."

"There's nothing to deal with," Chris said mildly too mildly. "Sister Pete got it wrong."

"Well, you must have said something to make her think-"

"Toby," Chris' sigh sounded a little frustrated, "can't you just let it be?"

Sitting back, watching him, Toby was starting to feel a little frustrated himself. "She seems to think there's something going on with you that I haven't noticed. What is it?"

Chris sighed again, a really exasperated exhalation this time. "And I said it's not important. Just leave it alone."

"There must be something."

"Toby for Christ's sake, how many fucking times do I have to say there is no fucking problem?" Chris demanded, glaring across the table at him, his raised voice drawing the attention of others in the room including Vern and his new constant shadow, Roger.

The last thing Toby wanted to do was put on a show for those two, and he whispered, "Keep your voice down."

Something flashed in Chris' eyes as he fired back, "Yeah, 'cause we wouldn't wanna cause a scene, would we?"

There wouldn't be a scene, Toby thought, if Chris would just say what was on his mind instead of playing these goddamn games. "Chris," he huffed, "will you just tell me what's wrong? Whatever it is, we'll fix it."

As if that had flipped some switch, Chris snapped his book shut and shoved it across the table at him. "You can't fucking fix everything, Beecher. Will you just fuck off for awhile?"

Stunned, Toby stared back at him, flabbergasted -- and he definitely did not need Vern calling over:

"Not having a lover's spat over there, are you, Tobias, Christopher? I sure would hate to see that."

Ignoring him, Toby leaned towards Chris, urgently whispering, "Look, let's get out here, go somewhere we can talk in private."

"For fuck's sake, Beecher," Chris sounded and looked like he was about at wits' end, "there is nothing to talk about. Just let me alone for awhile," he added, getting up and walking out of the library.

Toby hurried to catch up to him, trailing right on his heels and suddenly getting hit with a horrible sense of dj vu as memories came flooding back, of the last time a scene like this had played out between them, with Chris shutting him out as he desperately tried to get his attention. But that was a whole other lifetime ago, he told himself, and they had come so far since then; this couldn't possibly play out the same way. "Chris," he caught the other man's arm, stopping him, "just talk to me, please. If I've said something or done something-"

"Toby, all you fucking do is say this and do that and I wish to Christ you'd just fucking stop!"

"Stop what?" Toby pleaded, all too aware they were stopped in the middle of the common area, with everyone watching. "Just please tell me what this is about."

"It's about you never leaving anything alone, Toby! It's about you living in some fucking fantasy world!"

"Gentlemen," Murphy interrupted, "is there a problem?"

"No," Toby said, glancing at him. "No," he looked back at Chris, anxious to keep this from escalating any further, "we're just having a discussion."

"Well how about you have your discussion at a lower volume?" Murphy firmly suggested.

Nodding, Toby tried to tug Chris over to their pod, feeling only moderately relieved that Chris acquiesced. With the door closed behind them, Toby put his hands on Chris' broad shoulders, gently rubbing and squeezing, trying to sooth away the tension he could feel thrumming through the powerful body. "All right," he said, keeping his voice soft, calm, "whatever this is, Chris, we can work it out. But you have to tell me you know there's nothing you can't tell me."

Chris gave him a sort of despairing look before pulling away and pacing over to the pod door, leaning there. "Toby, I've told you a hundred times, but you never fucking listen to me."

"Then tell me again, this time I promise I will," Toby said, forcing himself to stay put when every instinct was telling him to wrap himself around Chris before he bolted.

And didn't it just stand to reason, he found himself thinking, that the moment you'd stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop that's when it came crashing down.

Chris watched Toby warily, wanting to believe this time would be different and Sister Pete was right about him being able to trust Toby to listen and understand. He didn't want to him fight him; he sure as hell didn't want to hurt him. Chris hated seeing that desperate, wounded look back in Toby's eyes, especially when he'd been so happy just this morning. Walking over to his bunk, Chris sat down there, thinking he probably shouldn't have said anything to Sister Pete. He should have just gone on keeping everything to himself like he'd always done. They had so little time left together, he was certain of that; it was stupid to ruin it by bitching about things Toby couldn't help.

He looked over at the other man, wondering what he should say. Maybe he could make something up, something that had nothing to do with Toby? Chris had a feeling, though, that too much had already been said for Toby to buy that.

"Chris...?" Toby crouched down before him, putting his hands on Chris' knees, looking at him so earnestly.

He took a deep breath, released it. "Toby... Look, I know you mean well and maybe you even believe it, but," he paused, gathering his thoughts, "but all this talk about how we're going to be together, have a life outside of Oz it's making me nuts, Toby."

Toby rocked back on his heels, looking bewildered. "That's it?" he said, like it wasn't nearly enough. He blew out his cheeks, looking relieved. "Geez, you had me scared out of my wits for a minute, Chris." Getting to his feet, running a hand back through his hair, he looked at Chris with a crooked smile. "Don't do that again, huh?"

Chris leaned forward, looking at the floor, shaking his head. "Yeah, I won't," he said quietly. It was better this way, he knew that, it was just... He bit his lip, sighed. "Look, I gotta..." What? "go work on my GED." There, that should keep Toby out of his hair for awhile, long enough for him to shove this all back down again.

This time he'd keep it there. It wasn't going to kill him to keep playing along with Toby's wishful thinking. That might even be part of the penance, to be able to imagine what could have been with him and Toby, if only he hadn't fucked up everything in his life.

Toby watched Chris walk out of the pod, heading for the computer room, feeling relieved and exhausted. And...still a little bit worried. There was something about Chris, something like an air of defeat, that made him wonder if that really was all there was to it, that he'd been getting on Chris' nerves a little bit.

But what else could it be? Toby wondered, dropping down on Chris' bunk, his sense of relief already evaporating and leaving him with an uneasy feeling in its place.


Leaving Tim McManus' office, Sister Pete paused, seeing Chris in the computer room and wondering if he'd spoken to Tobias yet about what was troubling him. She told the CO escorting her to wait outside then stepped into the room, closing the door after her shaking her head as she saw Chris was just gazing at a blank monitor. "You know, I hear those work better if you actually turn them on."

He started, looking around at her and not with a very welcoming look on his face. "Did you want something?" His tone of voice was a little cold and distant, too.

Frowning, Sister Pete walked over to him, hoping this sudden pique wasn't because he had spoken to Tobias and things hadn't gone well. "I just wondered if you've talked with Tobias yet, about what we discussed."

The look he turned on her then almost made her back up a few steps. She had never seen him look quite that angry, sharply and abruptly reminding her that this was a very dangerous man. "Chris-"

"Yeah, I've talked to Tobias," he interrupted, sounding a little bitter. "And where the hell do you get off yapping to him anyway?" he demanded. "I thought what I said to you in a session was supposed to be confidential."

"It is, Chris," she said, standing her ground. "I only suggested to Tobias that you might have something on your mind; I never told him the nature of your concerns."

"Yeah, well, you had no business telling him anything."

"I was only trying to help; I'm concerned about both of you."

He threw her a cynical look now. "Concerned? And why, exactly, is what goes on between me and Toby anything for you to be concerned about? You're not our mother, and you're not our relationship counselor."

"You made it my business, Chris," she reminded him. "You're the one who got me involved in the first place."

"Yeah and who let that happen, Sister?" he shot right back. "Like you said, it takes two to swing dance. If you hadn't liked what I was doing you should have slapped me right down." A knowing smirk twisted his mouth as he looked at her. "Only you and me both know you did like it, don't we, Sister?" he asked, gliding into seductive mode as easily as Sister Pete would change shoes.

He was trying to manipulate her again, she knew that in her bones and the worst of it was, it was working. "I'm not going to play games with you, Chris-"

"No?" The smirk was gone; this smile was the one meant to draw you to him like the proverbial moth to a flame, matched by the silky voice. "Bet I could think of some of games you'd like to play, Sister."

"Chris, I know what you're doing," she told him, refusing to even acknowledge the little flutter of anticipation in her stomach.

"So how come you're standing there letting me do it?" he asked, not letting up, letting his gaze slowly travel over her. "You trust me again? Is that it? I'm back in your good graces?"

"I have to trust you if I'm going to have any success treating you, Chris," she said, angry at the triumphant little flash in his eyes as she backed away from him.

"That trust," he said, "it's supposed to run both ways, right?"


As if he'd flipped a switch he was back to being cold, withdrawn. "Well, that's sort of the dilemma, then 'cause I don't trust you anymore."

That's what this was all about? He felt she had betrayed his confidence, and this was his form of payback? "Chris, it wasn't like that."

The look he turned on her now was the frostiest she had ever seen from him. "It was exactly like that, Sister. You think I go around telling stuff like to just anyone? You think it's easy for me? I wasn't lying when I said I liked being in the same room with you only I don't anymore, 'cause you're just like everyone else that's ever fucked with me."

As much as Sister Pete wanted to say he was wrong, she knew she couldn't; the last thing he needed was someone the latest in a long line of someones? telling him what he felt wasn't real, wasn't justified. Not to mention, she very grudgingly admitted, that he might have a very valid point. Where was her objectivity, any claim to professionalism in her dealings with either Chris or Tobias?

"We'll talk about this again, Chris, when you're ready."

"Which'll be never," he informed her, turning back to the computer and turning it on this time.

Conceding defeat, for the moment, Sister Pete withdrew as gracefully as possible, wondering why her good intentions were always backfiring when it came to these two men.

Staring at the monitor, Chris sighed. Well, that was just great, wasn't it? On top of everything else, he'd just told a nun to go fuck herself.

This day just kept getting better and better.

Digging through the footlocker he shared with Chris, Toby located his improvised Valentine to Chris. He would have liked to be able to give him a real card, but if this didn't quite live up to Hallmark standards he hoped Chris would appreciate the gesture. And that he wouldn't think Toby was being too sappy for words.

He just wanted to do something nice for Chris, to make up for all the times he'd kind of missed the boat there. And it still irked him sometimes that he had to thank a fathead like Roger Elkins for making him aware of his shortcomings in the romance department. This might be a pretty incongruous setting for that, but it was all they had at the moment, and Toby had made up his mind to mark this day somehow. Poetry had seemed inspired at the time, especially since he had been known to be a little injudicious with his remarks to Chris. It had taken awhile, but he had finally found a small selection of verse that said what he wanted to only so much better.

Unfolding the sheaf of paper, he read the first one, by Dorothy Parker, hoping it would strike the right, self-deprecating tone:

Into love and out again,
Thus I went and thus I go.
Spare your voice and hold your pen:
Well and bitterly I know
All the songs were ever sung,
All the words were ever said;
Could it be when I was young,
Someone dropped me on my head?

If that one did go a little bit amiss, Chris would surely like the next one, Toby thought, reading it again:

Born of my voiceless time, your steps
Slowly, ecstatically advance:
Toward my expectation's bed
They move in a hushed, ice-clean trance.

Pure being, shadow-shape divine-
Your step deliberate, how sweet!
God!-ever y gift I have imagined
Comes to me on those naked feet.

If so it be your offered mouth
Is shaped already to appease
That which occupied my thought
With the live substance of a kiss,

Oh hasten not this loving act,
Rapture where self and not-self meet:
My life has been the awaiting of you.
Your footfall was my own heart's beat.

God knew when Toby had found this one, memories of their first night together had come flooding back on the spot. 'My life has been the awaiting of you...' It had to speak to Chris, too. Didn't it?

He sat on Chris' bunk, suddenly afraid this was going to be worse than sappy. What if Chris hated poetry? He didn't exactly come across as the 'A book of verses underneath the bough...' type, after all. Or was that some residual whiff of class prejudice peeking out, assuming that since Chris hadn't even finished high school, much less gone to Harvard, he couldn't possibly have any appreciation for poetry?

Fuck. If it wasn't for the sweet little glow he got in his belly when Chris just looked at him, or the comfort of waking up to warm, welcoming arms when some nightmare was tormenting him, or any of the hundred times during the day that Toby felt renewed and strengthened just because Chris loved him, he'd have to conclude this being in love stuff could really suck sometimes. If it wasn't real, though, he knew he wouldn't be able to tie himself up in knots like this at a moment's notice.

He looked at the next poem, one by Edna St. Vincent Millay, its lines declaring everything he wanted to say to Chris about what this love of theirs meant to him, and how he would never let it go:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain; Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink And rise and sink and rise and sink again; Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath, Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone; Yet many a man is making friends with death Even as I speak, for lack of love alone. It well may be that in a difficult hour, Pinned down by pain and moaning for release, Or nagged by want past resolution's power, I might be driven to sell your love for peace, Or trade the memory of this night for bread. It well may be. I do not think I would.

No, he was not going to second-guess himself into ripping these up and flushing them down the toilet. He was going to have faith in Chris.

For once.

Gathering the rest of the sheets together, he folded them all neatly and stuffed them in the plain white envelope, Chris' name written across it, and carefully tucked it under Chris' pillow. Now he just had to make sure Chris didn't find it too soon before lights out.


Chris tried not to sigh as he felt Toby watching him again. He was glad it wasn't too much longer until lights out, though; maybe they could at least end this day on a better note. That was assuming Toby didn't have another surprise to spring on him. He'd sure had that buzz about about him all day, like he was up to something and couldn't wait for Chris to find out about it. That seldom boded well, Chris had found.

Useless to wish Toby would knock it off, of course. Toby had the best intentions, Chris knew that, and anybody who wasn't a fucked up asshole would probably be able to appreciate them. That did sort of leave Chris out of the picture, though. God knew Bonnie'd gotten on his case about it as much as Toby. And he didn't even mean to be a pain in the ass, he just couldn't seem to help it; anybody doing something nice for him, complimenting him for anything but his body and how good he was in bed -- it just threw him, he had trouble registering it and believing it could be true. He couldn't help but think there was something more behind the words, something that was going to come up and smack him if he was ever dumb enough to really believe it. Chris shook that train of thought off, knowing where it would lead and not really wanting to revisit that territory.

Anyway, didn't they say it was better to give than receive? Although even that was difficult for him and most times he'd talked himself out of giving someone a present because of thinking nobody'd want anything from him. He didn't like remembering how easy Bonnie had been to please; fuck, sometimes she'd acted like he was treating her if got off his ass to take out the garbage. Why she'd married him twice beat the fuck out of him. Least she was happy now with Jimmy Luttrell, even had some kids, something he'd never wanted to give her or any of the girls. Maybe he could chalk that up as some kind of accomplishment, that he'd at least had the good sense to never risk bringing another Christopher Keller into the world? That ought to count for something.

Seeing Toby get up and go the door, looking out at the clock, Chris felt his stomach knotting up. Fuck, Toby was waiting for just the right time for...well, something that didn't require the cover of darkness. Chris could tell that much from the look Toby gave him now, that 'I've got something for you' one.

Well, how bad could it be?

"Why don't you check under your pillow?" Toby suggested, unable to stand the suspense any longer.

"Under my pillow?" Chris looked over at him, obviously thinking a few of Toby's marbles had made a run for it. For once he appeared willing to just get with the program, however, shifting around and digging under his pillow and bringing out the envelope. "What is it?"

"Well, you could always open it and find out," Toby said, trying to sound like it wasn't any big deal.

Chris gave him another skeptical look, but then slipped his thumb under the flap and popped it, shaking out the contents. Assuming he had been expecting anything at all this clearly had not been among the possibilities considered to judge by the 'So what the hell is this?' look he aimed at Toby. He gave a little shrug, though, and picked up the note Toby had enclosed.

Toby didn't want to stare, didn't want to give the impression this mattered too much, but he couldn't help thinking some little reaction would have been nice. He could feel his spirits sinking as he watched Chris sort through each sheet, reading the words with slightly less interest than if reading a shopping list. When he was done, Chris folded them all up again, stuffed them back in the envelope and got up to put it away in their locker. Then he went to the sink, reached for his toothbrush and started brushing his teeth.

Toby tried not to feel too disappointed. What had he expected, after all, for Chris to get all dewey-eyed and make some flowery declaration of his own? Some kind of acknowledgement, just a nod or a smile or...something wouldn't have killed him, would it?

And that feeling returned, that despite Chris assuring him they were okay, there was something wrong. What had he said? 'All this talk about how we're going to be together, have a life outside of Oz, it's making me nuts, Toby.' Watching his lover, Toby wondered if Chris had meant something very different from what he'd heard. That Chris wasn't just exasperated with Toby's constant chattering about what their lives would be like, but worn out and frustrated by it all. 'It's about you never leaving anything alone, Toby. It's about you living in some fucking fantasy world.'

Well, but, what the hell was he supposed to do? Act like what he had with Chris was nothing important? Make all of Chris' gloomy predictions come true by walking out of here one day and leaving everything behind him -- including Chris? Toby couldn't help the resentful look he sent Chris then, part of him wanting to confront him and demand to know if that would really make him happy, would he savor the satisfaction of being proved right if Toby walked away and never looked back?

Catching the look, Chris frowned back at him, looking like he might say something, but then he just shook his head and stretched out on his bunk again, picking up his book. Toby sighed, wondering how they had gotten to this point -- from him teasing Chris about reading ('You know, if you want to read in the pod I promise no one will ever learn the deep, dark secret that you actually like books. Cross my heart.') to not being able to talk about anything because it might push the wrong buttons or something. Obviously Chris was only humoring him, laboring under some idea that he had to pretend to go along with what Toby wanted or...? What? Or Toby would stop loving him?

With a sigh he got up to brush his teeth, wishing he had some better guide to how to handle all of this than his relationship with Gen. And how many paralells would he find there if he searched long enough? he wondered, looking at his reflection in the mirror. Had Gen felt pressured and frustrated by all his good intentions? And didn't they say that's what the road to hell was paved with?

Fuck, all he'd wanted was for Chris to have a happy Valentine's Day. And, okay, maybe that wasn't a particularly big deal with another guy. How the hell was he supposed to know that? He'd never been in love with another man before this, he didn't know all the fucking protocol. Not like Chris? he found himself thinking, turning to look at the other man. They had eventually talked about a lot of things, trying to learn to spot those hot button topics and deal with them in a more constructive fashion -- that's what had lulled him into thinking everything was so much better between them; as good as they could be given where they were. One thing they had never gotten back around to, however, was Toby's accusation that Chris had been lying when he'd said he hadn't felt like this with any other man.

With one regretful look at Chris, thinking that spending the night in their separate bunks was not at all how he had envisioned tonight, Toby climbed up to his bed to wait for lights out. Stretched out there, he thought about why he'd never asked Chris that question again. As with so much in this relationship, it was a jumble of things. Part of it was sheer green-eyed jealousy that anyone but Tobias Beecher could make Chris desire him -- and at least he knew where that came from. He didn't want to be alone in this unexpected turnabout. He wanted Chris to tell him, 'No, baby, until I saw you, I'd never wanted another man.' And that was tied up with their shared experience of Vern: they were both supposed to be turning to each other, finding healing in each other's arms, from the brutality they had each experieinced at Vern's hands. That part of the equation didn't quite work, though, did it, if Chris had gone on to love other men after his time in Lardner.

Maybe Chris was right and he was living in some ludicrous fantasy world, seeing them as soulmates, rescuing each other from the evil Schillinger, and...he didn't know, riding off together into the sunset on Chris' motorcycle. What the hell was so wrong with wanting a fucking happy ending for them? Why did that have to be so impossible?

And why the hell did he have to fall in love with someone who wouldn't know a happy ending if it walked up and bit him in the ass? Toby shifted around, trying to get more comfortable, and groping under his pillow to see what the hell was making that big lump. Maybe Chris had seen Romeo and Juliet at an impressionable age and been scarred for life? Toby thought, glaring at the CD Walkman he'd extracted from beneath the pillow.

Chris had probably stuck in there sometime in the day -- and left a CD in it, as usual. He was always doing that. Toby guessed that was another strike against them achieving domestic bliss, that Chris seemed incapable of putting anything back where he'd found it.

Thinking music might drive off the thoughts in his head, Toby slipped the headphones on and hit the play button -- quickly turning the volume down as first strains of "Swingtown" started. He didn't care for that one, but the next track, "Jungle Love," was pretty good, and even feeling pissed off he couldn't help wondering how that would be, if he and Chris could be alone in some tropical paradise, making love 'In the surf/In the pouring rain/Everything's better when wet.' No doubt Chris would consider that another pointless pipe dream, but Toby couldn't help liking the images his brain insisted on conjuring up all the same.

He could imagine the next track, "Take The Money And Run," was one of Chris' favorite; Toby liked the next one, "Rock N' Me," a lot better. The next one -- what was it? He checked the CD case (also stuffed under the pillow) -- "Serenade," was kind of boring, though. "True Fine Love" was better -- 'So come on get your rocks off/I'm gonna knock your socks off/You'll see/Oh yeah/So come on pretty baby/We're gonna raise a family.' Yeah, that was a pretty appealing image, too. Why was he the only one who wanted that for them? Why was Chris so afraid to even let himself wish for it? Toby sighed, suspecting that if he ever figured that one out he would finally have arrived at the core of what had his lover so fucked up about everything; why he wouldn't let himself hope and dream about anything. Toby thought he'd give anything to change that, but he just didn't know where to even begin and suspected it couldn't even start to happen unless Chris wanted it to. Nobody could have gotten him to stop drinking, after all; he'd barely even acknowledged there was any kind of problem. No, it had taken killing Cathy Rockwell and landing here in Oz to wake him up to the mess his life had become. Toby didn't even want to think about what might still need to happen to Chris to shake him up in a similar fashion.

Trying to concentrate on the music again, Toby was really caught by the next track -- what was it, "The Stake?" The lyrics weren't much, although he liked that one line, 'Nobody loves you like the way I do,' but the beat was great, perfect for a slow, sexy bump-and-grind dance, and once again he couldn't help it that his brain instantly supplied images of himself and Chris pressed together as close as was humanly possibly, moving in time to the music. That was assuming Chris danced; that was assuming he wouldn't declare that was one more goofy thing Toby wanted to do -- oh, but so long as it kept Toby happy and loving him Chris would go along with it, because everybody knew if Toby didn't get what he wanted the first thing he did was stop loving Chris.

Fuck. Hitting the stop button even as the lights finally went out, Toby shoved the Walkman back under the pillow and rolled over on his side. After another moment he called down, softly, "Good night."

Silence, of course.

Yeah, and happy fucking Valentine's Day to you, too, he thought, rolling over on his other side and closing his eyes.

Quietly slipping out of bed, Chris paused to look at Toby, checking to make sure he was asleep. He knew he'd made him angry, made hurt him, even, earlier, but he'd just been caught off guard by Toby's letter and those poems. How was he supposed to respond to something like that? He wasn't even sure he believed it, after all.

Here and now, yeah, Toby probably meant it, but -- Chris couldn't help reaching to softly stroke the other man's soft, golden hair -- it was just more of a leap of faith than he felt he could take, really believing it would always be true. And he didn't know how to explain that to Toby, not when he barely understood the reasons himself.

Very carefully, Chris opened the locker again and took out the envelope, carrying it over to the door and looking around to make sure no hack was around. He didn't know why there should be anything wrong with him wanting to read a letter in the middle of the night but he'd bet Mineo or one of the others would still make an issue of it. The coast was clear, though, and he slipped the letter out, turning the single sheet of paper to catch the little bit of light streaming in, not that he didn't already remember what it said:

Dear Chris,

It's funny, I've just spent five minutes looking at that -- 'Dear Chris' -- and wondering if that's the appropriate way to address you. Want to know my answer? Well, given you are very dear to me, it's hard to see why there's a problem.

That's the reason for this and the poems. I keep wondering about the right thing to say to you, and remembering all the times when the words that came out of my mouth were, well, pretty awful. It's hard to put what I feel for you into words, it' much, so much more than I ever knew I could experience.

That story I told you -- our bedtime story, remember? That was how I felt back then, that I was all alone, lost in this hell on earth. Then you came into my life, and I don't care how it started, or what brought you to me, you did pull me out of that. You made me feel again, laugh again -- love again. I owe you my life, I owe you my sanity -- such as it may be.

Maybe you'll think this is sappy beyond words. I don't know. I hope you'll believe the words, though. I do love you -- and if I have to say that a hundred times a day for the next fifty years until you believe me, I'll do it. And be eternally thankful for the opportunity.

Happy Valentine's Day,

Chris wished he could believe it, but it was just too hard. It was real sweet of Toby to make this effort, though, and he hoped when Toby got out of here he'd find some nice girl who'd be able to appreciate things like this.

Hearing a rustle from the bunks, he looked over there, feeling like he'd been caught out at something as he met Toby's sleep-muzzy eyes. "Chris? What're you doing?" Toby asked, sitting up, rubbing his face.

"Nothing. Go back to sleep."

Toby dropped to the floor instead, coming over to him, reaching for the paper and envelope, looking at it them and Chris with a puzzled expression on his sweet face. "I don't understand you."

"I know."

Toby's mouth quirked with a little smile and he reached over to touch Chris' face, gentle fingertips tracing his cheek. "I want to. Why won't you let me?"

Chris wished he had an answer for him.


"Talk to me."

Those were not Chris' three favorite words, he'd never known anything good to come of them. At least all the other people who had ever spoken them to him had eventually given up and let him be. He could make Toby stop, of course: make him angry enough, hurt him enough to chase him away once and for all. Nothing short of that was going to do it, though, and Chris just didn't have the energy for it tonight.

"'Bout what?" he said, stalling for time even so. He would be more than content to stay just like this, the two of them stretched out on his bunk, holding each other. He felt Toby's fingers stroking his hair, that slight touch soothing and grounding him.

"Chris -- come on," Toby urged quietly.

"I..." He hesitated, took a breath. "I told Sister Pete that I think, " oh geez, was he really going to say this? "that I have to give you up, lose you, that it's my penance." The instant the words left his mouth he wanted to call them back. Toby wasn't going to understand what he meant.

And Chris really didn't appreciate Toby laughing at him. Just a soft little ironic laugh, but even so...

Toby tightened his grip before Chris could squirm away. "Shh, shh," he held Chris still, breath soft and warm against his cheek. "I'm not laughing at you, baby, I promise." He rubbed Chris' back, slow, circular motions. "It's us, both of us beating ourselves up over everything, even the way we love each other. I don't know about you but I'm for us finding something else to have in common.

"Fuck. Chris did pull away then, rolling over on his back and staring at the bedsprings above. "Toby, I'm serious."

Toby propped himself on an elbow, looking at him. "I'm sorry." He leaned down, pressing a kiss to Chris' chest, right over his heart. "I know this is important to you, Chris. Tell me -- I'm listening."

Still Chris hesitated. "It's kinda complicated."

Toby's smile was rueful. "I sort of figured it would be," he said, gently rubbing his stomach in those slow, circular motions now.

"That feels good."

"Umm hmm. Quit stalling."

Chris sighed. "You wanna know how come I'm such an asshole about special occasions, right?"

"Among other things. I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable when I make a fuss about those things. I don't mean to upset you."

"I know that, Toby. It's just..." He bit his lip. "Birthdays and all that shit, those were big deals for you, when you were growing up? Your folks made a big fuss over that, over everything you did?"

"Well, not everything, but yeah, I guess."

"That must've been nice."

"Chris..." Toby sounded like he was beginning to suspect this wasn't going to be real pretty.

"When I was...I dunno, seven?...I heard my mom telling my dad maybe they should do something to celebrate my birthday." Funny how most of his childhood was one big blank except for these few moments that stood out so starkly. It always surprised him when anyone could remember their childhood in vivid detail, and how what they remembered was mostly good stuff. That had just been one more thing to make him feel like he didn't fit in. Not that it mattered, not anymore; and Toby wouldn't want to know about that. He probably didn't want to know about this, either, but Chris knew he couldn't just stop there. "I guess one of the neighbors had said something to her and that's why she brought it up. Anyway, my dad told her why would they want to celebrate the worst thing that ever happened to them, and that was that." He didn't think he'd actually understood what his father actually meant at the time, but he'd gotten the gist of it all the same. Like that one Christmas, before his mom died, when the two of them had gone all out for some reason; probably they'd come into a little bit of money. That was another stupid memory: sitting on the stairs and looking through the railings at the Christmas tree down there, all lit up and dazzling his eyes, watching his folks open the presents they'd gotten each other. Nothing for him, of course, his father had already made sure he understood that. He'd had to creep down anyway, just to look at the tree, just to watch them and pretend like he was included so he could tell the other kids something when he went back to school.


"I mean, it's no big deal," he quickly told Toby. "It's just, you know, if you never get in the habit of doing stuff it's kinda hard to get the hang of it later on." There, now maybe Toby would let it rest.

Toby stroked his forehead, looking at him all worried and concerned, and Chris felt his stomach knotting up as he realized Toby wasn't even close to letting it go. "Chris, why would your father have said something so horrible? Can you tell me?"

God, he did not want to do this. "Can't you just let it alone, Toby?" He closed his eyes, almost hurting as Toby leaned close and kissed his lips.

"I'm sorry, but... Chris, you can't tell me something like that and expect it to explain everything."

"Why not?"

"Chris..." Toby kissed him again, cradling his head. "Whatever they did to you, they can't hurt you now. There's no one here but me." He stroked Chris' hair again, soft, slow touches. "Tell me."

Could he? Just a little of it, maybe? "I told you my mom died when I was ten, right?" he said, carefully venturing out on this limb.


He took a breath. "I was the one who found her. I was coming home from school, she must've known I'd be the one who'd find her." Funny how he could still see her on the couch there, sort of slumped like she'd fallen asleep. "She was in her best black dress, the one she wore to church every Sunday, with the pearls she said Grandmother had given her. The TV was going. I thought she was just asleep and tried to wake her. There was an, uh, open bottle of whiskey on the coffee table and an empty pill bottle on the floor, but I didn't know what that meant." He'd just known that Mama was cold and wouldn't wake up and it scared him, so he ran next door for help. "Did you know the Church won't let you be buried on consecrated ground if you commit suicide? Father Mulroney wouldn't even come say any words over her." He frowned, remembering standing there at the gravesite -- just him and his dad, and Aunt Sarah; his grandparents hadn't even come -- looking at the box down in that hole, and his dad smacking him when he'd started to cry.

"Dad told me it was my fault she'd died, that I'd fucked up both their lives by ever getting born and it should've been me in that box. He'd arranged for her to get an abortion when she told him he'd knocked her up, but she couldn't go through with it in the end 'cause of being Catholic, and they had to get married." What had his father told him? 'That's what they call ironic, Christopher,' yeah, that was it. 'She couldn't get rid of you because it would've been a sin, so now she'd burning in hell for offing herself. All because of a worthless piece of shit like you.'

Chris realized Toby had gotten awful quiet and felt a sinking sensation in his belly. He'd said too much, stuff Toby didn't want to hear. "Toby? I'm sorry. I mean, I know that's no excuse, that's got nothing to do with me not treating you right."

"Treating me right?" Toby said, sounding sort of bewildered as he pulled away. "Jesus, Chris..." He slipped out of the bunk and paced over to the pod door, bracing himself there, the muscles of his back standing out through his t-shirt. "Jesus..." he whispered again.

Chris watched him, feeling helpless, wanting to call back every word. "Toby...?" He got up, too, wanting to go over to him but holding back. Why was he always falling for that 'Talk to me and it'll be all right,' bullshit? It never was.

"That's why you've always been down on Genevieve, isn't it?" Toby said, turning to face him. "Because she killed herself and the kids found her."

Shit, he hadn't stopped to think about the memories that would rake up for Toby. No wonder he was pissed off. "Yeah, I...guess. Toby, I'm sorry. I just forgot about that. I know what happened to me wasn't anything to what you and your kids have been through."

"Chris -- shut up. Just shut up," Toby said, quickly crossing back to him and pulling him close, holding him tight. "Don't do that, Chris," he whispered, reaching up to cradle the back of his head.

"Don't what?" Chris honestly did not understand and was really feeling worn out by trying to keep up with Toby. "Toby, I'm not trying justify any--"

"I said stop it," Toby practically hissed the words in his face, gripping Chris' hair hard enough to hurt. "Stop apologizing. Stop -- stop devaluing your life, your feelings." He pushed back from Chris then, holding him by the shoulders, fingers digging in deep. Looking into his eyes, Toby demanded, "You honestly think I am that shallow, that...that self-absorbed that your pain means nothing? That you have to, to apologize to me because you're hurting?" He shook Chris a little, not like he was angry, more like he was frustrated out of his wits. Looking contrite he pulled Chris close again, just holding him, pulling Chris' head down to his shoulder. "Just tell me he's dead."


"Your sorry-ass excuse for a father." Toby's voice was quiet but Chris could hear the anger in it, could feel the furious tension in the slim body holding him. It was hard for him to process, though. Toby was this angry -- on his behalf?

"Yeah, he, umm, he died about ten years ago."

"Good." Toby sounded way too satisfied. "I hope it was something slow and painful."

"Toby," Chris chastened him, raising his head, "that's--"

"Vindictive as hell? Ask me if I give a fuck." Toby pushed back a little now, looking at him so seriously. "Why do you?" he asked, brushing the back of his hand along Chris' face.

"He...was my father." That was all Chris knew to say.

"Yeah, and you're supposed to honor your father and blood's thicker than water. That's bullshit, Chris. Any parent who would tell a child, their flesh and blood, something like that deserves to be -- I don't know, drawn and quartered."

Chris almost felt like he was seeing Toby for the first time, and he wasn't quite sure what to make of it. "You sound like Bonnie."

"You told her all this?"He shrugged. "Yeah. I...sorta had to after she met him." Somehow he managed to pull up a rueful little smile. "She only wanted to skin him alive."

Toby smiled back a little. "I knew there was I reason I liked her." He pulled Chris close again. "I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For...making you dredge up poison like that. For you ever having to live through it in the first place. For there not being someone to take you away from it." He looked in Chris' eyes again, searching. "Didn't anyone ever try to get you away from him? What about your Aunt Sarah? You said she had you for awhile."

"Yeah. She didn't want me, though. Least..." He frowned, shrugged. "I don't know. Bonnie always said I'd got it wrong, about Aunt Sarah. Anyway, it's--"

"Chris, if the next words out of your mouth are anything like 'it's not important,' I'm going to -- paint your toenails some night when you're sleeping."

Chris blinked. "What?"

"You heard me," Toby stated firmly, looking back him with a stern defiance that was a little at odds with the smile tugging at his mouth, and Chris felt some of the tension bleed away.

"You're nuts.""

Yeah, that's pretty much moot at this point." Toby grasped Chris' shoulders again, gently this time. "Come on," he said, drawing Chris down on the lower bunk again. "Can I ask what happened to him?" he said after a moment. "If you don't want to tell me--"

"No, it's...okay." Chris shifted on his side, letting Toby hold him. "It was AIDS."

"How, umm...?"

"Sharing needles, he said. I don't know. I hadn't seen much of him in years, then I got a letter from him, saying he was in the hospital and that wanted to see me." That memory was pretty vivid, too, walking into the hospital ward and seeing this man, this man he remembered as so big and strong, all wasted away to skin and bones, those lesions on his skin. "He didn't say much. I thought...I thought maybe he wanted to tell me he was sorry, ask me to forgive him. But he didn't say."

"Did you forgive him anyway?"

"Kind of. I don't know. The nurse there -- she looked at me like I was scum 'cause I wouldn't touch him. She thought it was because I thought I'd catch it. It wasn't, though."

"What was it?" Toby asked softly, stroking his hair again."I...was afraid he'd tell me not to. That...he'd reject me all over." He sighed. "I talked to a priest once, when I landed in Lardner, asked him how come my life had gotten so fucked up. All he told me was that it was all part of God's plan. That's a hell of a thing, isn't it, Toby, getting told you're going to be a stupid fuck-up all your life 'cause God wants it that way."

"Oh, Chris..." Toby tried to pull him a little closer. "Yeah, that's a hell of a thing."

He was quiet for awhile then, and Chris hoped maybe that was finally enough and they could just rest for awhile now. Just when he thought it was safe to close his eyes, though, Toby said, "But I still don't understand what you told Sister Pete. You think our love is God's way of punishing you? Is that it?"

Chris sighed again, suspecting this was going to be one of the longest nights of his life.


Toby could sense the weary resignation in Chris and was a hairsbreadth from telling him never mind, it could wait for another time. On the other hand he was afraid that if he didn't pursue this now, Chris would clam up again and there wouldn't be another opportunity. As it was, he felt pretty certain Chris was withholding a lot and Toby was sort of ashamed that he was sort of grateful for that; the tip of that iceberg was hard enough to take. So how much of a coward did that make him, he wondered, that he could bearly stand to hear what Chris'd had to endure?

He shifted a little, trying to hold Chris even closer, stroking his hair and feeling Chris' breath warm against his skin. Chris' history didn't exactly come as a surprise, of course. Far from simply knowing he and Chris came from very different backgrounds, intuition had been telling Toby for a long time that those differences went far beyond ephemeral things like money and privilege. The anger, that sense of being worthless, disposable that Chris carried around with him -- that had to spring from something buried deep inside him, from seeds planted so long ago. Had Toby's parents been ideal, his childhood idyllic? Well, of course not, there was no such thing outside of old black and white TV sitcoms. Being a deeply flawed parent himself had taught Toby that, and God alone knew what the long term effects of his actions would be on Holly and Harry. As guilty as he felt about that he could take some microscopic grain of consolation in knowing none of it had been deliberate. That's what he found so difficult to comprehend, how any parent could act with such malice toward their child. He didn't for a minute believe the abuse had stopped at words, either, although those probably had done the worst damage, left wounds that still hadn't healed.

It wasn't going to help the situation, Toby knew that, but all the same he couldn't help picturing the little boy Chris had been once, not understanding why his parents didn't love him; seeing him cringing away from hands that reached out to inflict hurt, and thinking he deserved it if Daddy hurt him. A little boy only wanting a hug, a kiss goodnight, someone to keep the monsters away. What happened when the monster was your own father, though? Toby looked away, out into the darkened common area, tears stinging his eyes and a wave of grief almost suffocating him for a moment as his imagination transformed that child Chris, hurt and lonely and afraid, into Gary...

"Toby?" Chris was looking at him, concerned. "Hey," he touched his face, "what is it?"

But Toby couldn't get any words out. He just shook his head, lips compressed tightly, as he turned his face into Chris' shoulder. It only made it worse to feel Chris stroking his hair, murmuring soothing words. He didn't want this to become something about him, that wasn't fair to Chris. "It's nothing," he managed to say after another moment.

"Toby, come on," Chris ruged, rubbing the back of his neck.

Toby exhaled a deep sigh against Chris' neck, sniffed, then raised his head to look at him. He couldn't demand total honesty from Chris if he wasn't willing to reciprocate, could he? "I was just thinking about how anyone could hurt a child, and," his face started to crumple again, "and...I couldn't help thinking about Gary."

There was nothing but understanding in Chris' eyes as he gathered Toby in his arms. "I'm sorry, baby," he said, pressing a soft kiss to Toby's temple.

"Don't be sorry about talking to me, Chris, telling me those things. What happened to you is just as unforgivable as what was done to Gary." And if there was a Hell he hoped Chris' father was roasting there, right along with Hank Schillinger. Andy's death haunted him -- but Hank? His only regret there was not being able to personally do the deed.

He scooted up against the wall, bringing Chris with him, holding him in the circle of his arms, trailing his fingers over the crucifix tattoo. "I think we've been over my trials and tribulations pretty thoroughly, Chris--"

"That doesn't mean it isn't all still important, Tobe."

"No, it doesn't, but there isn't much that can be done about any of that."

Chris turned his head to give him a skeptical look. "There ain't nothing anybody can do about what happened to me, either. It's all way too long ago to matter anymore."

Toby kissed the back of his head. "It matters, Chris, it always matters. And yeah, there's no way to fix anything in the past. We can do something about what's going on with us, though, here and now. I understand I've been making you nuts, going on about us living happily ever after, and I am sorry about that." He smiled a little wryly. "I get a little carried away sometimes, in case you hadn't noticed."

Chris shifted around to face him, a rueful smile lifting one corner of his mouth. "Yeah, I might've made a little note to myself about that."

"As long as you love me anyway," Toby returned, trying to keep it light.

Chris looked at him very seriously, though, and said, "That's a given, Toby, always." He spoke it like a pledge, threading his fingers through Toby's hair to bring his face closer, sealing it with a kiss.

Unable to not give himself over to that sweet, soft touch of lips and tongue, Toby curved his hands around the back of Chris' head, kissing him back. He caught Chris' lower lip with his own, moaning softly as he felt his lover's confident hands pushing his t-shirt up, stroking along his back, slipping beneath the cotton of his boxers to stroke his hip. As much as this was what Toby had envisioned earlier this evening, he knew half of Chris' motivation was to distract him out of talking anymore -- it was really close to working, too, he thought as Chris glided his mouth down his throat, licking along his collar bone--

"Chris, no," Toby said, holding him off with a supreme effort. "We're not done."

"Toby," Chris groaned his name, and not with passion, pushing against Toby's restraining hold, trying to snatch another kiss.

"No," Toby repeated, more firmly this time.

With a frustrated sigh, Chris gave up, stretching out on the bunk. "Okay, what?"

Smiling, Toby fitted himself alongside him, liking the way they fit together so well. He reached for one of Chris' hands, holding it as he said, "Tell me why you don't believe we can have a life together away from Oz, why we don't deserve to. Why you think our love is some kind of punishment for you. And don't tell me I'd have to be Catholic to understand."

"It'd probably help," Chris said, twining their fingers together.

"Yeah, well, that's just tough. Talk."

Chris was silent for a long time, but Toby made himself wait patiently; it wasn't like time was something they had a shortage of here. "I always figured I'd wind up here, somewhere like this," Chris finally said, once more in that quiet,
that's-just-how-life-is tone of voice. "That, or dead before I saw forty." A wry, sad smile wafted across his lips. "Actually ever since I turned thirty I figured I was running on borrowed time. I felt like I was just taking up space, you know? No matter what I did I always fucked it up. I was too stupid to make good grades in school, couldn't make my marriages work." He fell silent again, gaze fixed on the bedsprings above. "You know how a Ponzi works?" he asked after a moment.

Lawyerly instinct made Toby want to say, 'Objection -- irrelevant.' Another instinct told him to overrule himself, though. "I know it's some kind of pyramid scheme."

"Uh-huh. See, the way we did it -- we were sort of a gang, that's how I met Kitty; her dad ran the operation. I tried it on my own later, with Bonnie; she never liked it, though, always wound up feeling sorry for the people we'd scammed."

"And you didn't?"

"It wasn't like I was doing little old ladies out of their life savings. That's what Kitty's dad taught me: pick a mark who has deep pockets and who won't go to the cops 'cause he won't want anyone knowing what an asshole he was. Anyway, we did a bunch of cons, but the Ponzi was sort of the specialty. Johnny -- Kitty's dad -- he'd sort of given it his own little spin over the years. He'd send out this letter to the marks he'd picked out, inviting them to take part in the deal of a lifetime, guaranteed returns for your investment, that kinda thing. Me and Kitty were his prize examples of how it paid off: a young couple just starting out, having a tough time making ends meet, until we'd invested a little money in this deal and, bam, we were raking in the money and living in the lap of luxury. Johnny'd show the mark around our house, show him our cars, get us fitted out with snazzy clothes, expensive jewelry, all that shit -- never mentioning that it was all leased or sort of borrowed. The mark would fall for it and be parted from his money, and when Johnny figured we'd played it as far as we could, we'd blow town."

"Umm hmm. Why do I get the feeling you saw The Sting one too many times when you were a kid?" Toby said. "Chris, not that this isn't all really intersting," in fact he was a little embarrassed to admit he got a sort of voyeuristic kick out of these little glimpses into Chris' criminal past, "but what's it got to do with what we were talking about?"

"It's got to do with how come I'm such a fuck up about stuff that I oughta get right, but I can ace pointless shit like running a Ponzi. Everything in my life's been like that, and I never got a second crack at ever getting any of it right -- until you. See," Chris sat up, sitting cross-legged at other of the bunk, looking at him, "I fucked it up with you, too, right off the bat. What I said about Bonnie feeling sorry for the marks? That's breaking rule number one, and I broke it with you right from the start, that first night when you woke up screaming. And it was downhill all the way after that."

Toby wasn't sure if he should take that as a compliment or an insult, and decided silence was probably the best policy at the moment.

"When it was over," Chris went on, dropping his gaze to the mattress now, unwilling to look in Toby's eyes as he spoke, "when Operation Toby was completed to Vern's satisfaction, I figured," his voice broke for a moment and Toby wanted to reach over, touch him, but held back, sensing Chris really needed to say this, "that was it," he went on in another second. "That it was another lesson in irony: I'd got this chance to find something...something really good, someone who didn't look at me like I was trash. Someone who maybe meant it when they said they loved me. And I had to fuck it up. If I didn't go along with Vern, I was gonna be dead, and no matter how I played it you were gonna get hurt. There wasn't any way to make it come out right."


Ignoring him, Chris went on, a note of wonder coming into his voice, "But then there was, I got a second chance, the first time ever. See, I got to find out what it's like to really love somebody, Toby, and maybe feel loved back--"

"There's no maybe to it, Chris." Toby reached out then, touching his arm. "What do I have to do to prove that to you?"

Chris shrugged. "Dunno. You want me to go on?"


Chris sighed. "The thing is... I still gotta pay for the things I've done, and just being locked up here ain't enough. Not even for eighty-eight years. I expected that, ever since I can remember, I expected something like that. The way I'm gonna pay, though, really understand what it means to be here and not out there, with you, is having to stay here, having to watch you leave, knowing what coulda been if I hadn't been such a stupid fuck up." He looked at Toby then, an earnestness in his expression that begged Toby to understand.

Only Toby wasn't sure he did, really, and didn't know what to tell him. be continued in chapter eight...

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